If you have ever wondered about the history of the U.S. shrimp industry, then you need to meet the Versaggi family. The family’s first generation pioneered offshore shrimping after introducing powerboats and adopting new equipment, and developed new markets for shrimp in New York City. The second generation developed a large fleet of cutting-edge vessels that operated throughout the Gulf of Mexico and internationally and created one of the largest distributors of fresh and frozen shrimp in the United States. One hundred and ten years later, the third generation operates Versaggi Shrimp Corporation in Tampa, Florida. Sal Versaggi, one of the brothers, is the President of the Southern Shrimp Alliance and a dedicated leader on the many issues facing U.S. shrimp fishermen across the United States.
The first member of the Versaggi family emmigrated to the United States in 1898 from Syracusa, Sicily. Sollecito Salvadore hailed from a fishing family that sought to escape the depressed conditions of its homeland. As a merchant seaman aboard an Italian freighter, a hurricane forced an extended layover at the port of Fernandina, Florida and changed the course of his life and of the U.S. shrimp industry.
Salvadore, later anglicized to Mike Salvador, started shrimping full-time in 1899 and adopted the fishing method prevalent in Florida at that time, cast netting from rowboats in the shallow estuaries. Interested in increasing his production, he soon opted for the haul seine. In 1902, Salvador equipped a boat with a small one-cylinder, four-cycle gasoline engine to improve the efficiency of haul seine fishing. This was the first time a power-driven boat was employed in the Fernandina shrimp fishery and caused the area’s shrimp production to soar.
Increase Demand, Increase Supply
In 1906, Salvador was joined by his brother-in-law, Salvatore Versaggi, from Augusta, Sicily. Salvatore became disenchanted with the life of a fisherman in Fernandina and moved his family to New York to become a long-shoreman. Letters from friends reporting increased shrimp production in Fernandina sparked his interest in returning to the mild winters of Florida, but also stirred a conviction that there must be a better market for the shrimp. Salvatore made arrangements with friends in New York to buy the shrimp he would catch and returned the family to Florida in 1912.
Developing a new market for shrimp was not an overnight success. Salvatore labored hard and long to catch shrimp on his 12-horsepower boat, Mt. Etna. After packing and shipping his shrimp to New York in ice-filled butter tubs, he barely made a profit. However, the demand for fresh shrimp increased.
Salvatore quickly recognized that the success of his business would depend on increasing his production and efficiency, so he added more boats capable of fishing in the newly discovered shrimp grounds in offshore waters and converted to the latest fishery technology, a modified otter trawl. Salvatore owned a fleet of ten boats when he died in 1925 at the age of 49 years old.
The Second Generation
In 1925, the family had to make a decision about the future of the business that Salvatore had left behind. The burden of this decision was carried by his wife, Vincenzina, and her eighteen-year-old son, John. The two of them concluded that they would carry on the legacy of Salvatore.
John, the oldest son, filled the breach left by his father. He was soon joined by his brother Virgil. Meanwhile, Joe, the third son decided to go to New York to gain experience in the sales and marketing of shrimp. Soon Manuel, the fourth son joined the business and teamed up with Joe in New York. Eventually, Dominic, who had gone to the US Naval Academy and served in the Navy, joined the team upon his discharge from the service. The Versaggi brothers remembered well the lessons their father had taught them, and they steadily increased their fleet and upgraded their equipment.
Moving Beyond Florida
The next shrimping boom was along the Louisiana coast, and the Versaggi family was not to be left out. Virgil took a trip to Morgan City, Louisiana to verify the reports of good shrimp catches, and after one day requested that John send six boats and their crews from St. Augustine to Morgan City.
Following the precepts that guided them since entering the business, the family decided to build bigger, more powerful trawlers designed for the Louisiana fishery. The Versaggi brothers did not hesitate to mortgage everything they had. While risky, the family trusted Joe Versaggi, who was in the Fulton Fish Market in New York and believed the market for shrimp was strong and growing. Seven boats were built in 1941 and 1942, followed by six more vessels in 1943, and even more in the following years. Virgil continued to operate the new fleet and opened a packing plant in Patterson, Louisiana.
While the production end of the business was flourishing in Florida and Louisiana, Joe was steadily bettering his sales position in New York. In 1939, he formed Versaggi Fish Company with his brother Manuel, who traveled the Gulf states to seek new sources of fresh shrimp. The firm grew and soon developed a reputation as one of the largest distributors of fresh and frozen shrimp in the United States.
The Versaggi Shrimp Company boasted full production coverage of the Gulf of Mexico plus marketing facilities in New York that enabled the Versaggi brothers to feel the pulse of the business at all times.
The Versaggi family continued the pattern of finding new fishing grounds, building a top of the line fleet, and starting new ground operations: fifteen vessels operating the international waters off of the Mexican coast in 1948; four new sixty-five foot trawlers harvesting Key West pink shrimp in 1952; a fleet of boats in Georgetown, British Guyana off of the northern coast of South America in 1959; twelve boats in Cayenne, French Guyana that fished the rich grounds of Brazil in 1977; and, ten vessels in Belem, Brazil, located on the Amazon River in 1984.
Current Generation Returns Home
A profitable purchase of Versaggi’s international fleet in Georgetown afforded John, Virgil, and Dominic an ideal time to retire in the 1970s. A few years later, Manuel and Joe sold their interest Versaggi Shrimp Corp. to Joe’s sons: Sal, Joe, John, and Fred. In 1993, shrimp permitting changes in Brazil led the brothers to return the family’s shrimping fleet to Tampa, Florida. That is how 110 years after the first Versaggi emmigrated to the United States, the family is still shrimping in Tampa, Florida.